business

Troubles Grip Vital Uzbek Cotton Trade

Corruption and the persistence of Soviet-style collective agriculture plague Uzbekistan's cotton industry, whose No. 5 position in the global trade is at risk

On a wet morning in mid-April, a group of farmers in this region of central Uzbekistan were standing outside a meeting house. Their fields, having just weathered heavy rain, were too sodden to work.

According to Uznews.net, the sight of the idle farmers angered a local police officer. What happened next is not clear.

The website said the officer began to beat the men, but one of the reported victims said he merely swore at them.

"He said we should plant cotton, even if it's pouring rain or even if it's snowing," farmer Ubaydulla Pirnazarov said. The officer could not be reached for comment, but a colleague denied the accusations of brutality.

Whatever happened on that wet April morning, one local human rights activist says beatings of farmers is not unusual. The conflict hints at the miserable plight of Uzbekistan's cotton farmers and suggests that local officials might be getting increasingly desperate as the country's share of the world trade in cotton plummets.

"I've often watched a representative of local authorities swearing at farmers or even striking or kicking them at farmers meetings," Saida Kurbanova said. "It could be because of the absence of farmhands, fallow land, or lack of fertilizer."

"The men would endure everything, hanging their heads," she said. "They're afraid of losing their land and getting into debt."

Atamurat Abdukadyrov, assistant governor of the Pakhtakor district, denies that local authorities beat farmers but says that the governor sometimes swears at them.

FALLING BEHINDNearly half of Uzbekistan's work force is in agriculture, and cotton is a major source of export revenues. Uzbekistan is the world's fifth-largest producer of cotton, according to the UN's Conference on Trade and Development. The annual crop yields some 3.5 million tons of raw cotton, and the country exports about 800,000 to 900,000 tons of cotton fiber each year. Those exports bring in more than $1 billion, about a third of the national budget revenue.

But as worldwide cotton production has jumped - from about 19 million tons in 1990 to a projected 24 million tons in 2008 - Uzbekistan's share has steadily fallen. Further, its cotton fiber production dropped by nearly 4 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the Interfax news agency.

The country competes with the United States and China, both of which offer generous incentives and subsidies to their cotton farmers.

In Uzbekistan, farmers sell raw cotton at about $250 per ton, while Chinese farmers get about $700 per ton.

The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit, conflict-resolution organization, considers Central Asia's cotton industry a contributor "to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty, and environmental degradation."

In a 2005 report, the group noted that some Uzbek farmers make the very risky choice to smuggle cotton to neighboring countries to get a better price.

"I know only one farmer from the [local] association of farmers who earns rather well. He has a good house, a car," Kurbanova said.

And if farmers live in deprivation, farmhands live in penury. The family of Khusan Azmitdinov, a farm worker, has six members and takes in about $10 per person per month. Meanwhile, the average monthly wage in Uzbekistan was about $92 in 2005, according to the International Monetary Fund.

In late March, Azmitdinov went to the Pakhtakor district's governor, Ergash Saliev, and asked for help in receiving the wages he had earned working for an agricultural enterprise as a welder between 1995 and 2004. But Saliev summoned Ibragim Karshibayev, deputy chief of the district police department.

Karshibayev threatened to imprison Azmitdinov if he went to the governor again and complained, Azmitdinov said.

Shortly afterward, however, Azmitdinov said he received 100,000 sums ($80). He was offered another 50,000 to 60,000 sums per month if he agreed to inform police about the activities of local rights activist Kurbanova, Azmitdinov said.

LAND GRABSKurbanova's land was taken from her in 2004. According to Abdukadyrov, Pakhtakor district's assistant governor, her fields were neglected and cows ate the crops. Kurbanova says she did not gather the cotton harvest because she could not get money from her bank account in time to pay farmhands.

Kurbanova's family includes four sons 18 to 27 years old, a daughter-in-law, and a 2-year-old grandson. Only one son now works.

According to Freedom House, a Washington-based group that advocates democracy around the world, expropriation of farmland by local authorities "to augment their income through land speculation" was one root of civil unrest in Uzbekistan before the Andijan protests in May 2005 that met with violent suppression from the government.

"Nobody actually owns the land they work: at most they lease from the local authority, which can take land back from the farmer under ill-defined conditions, but usually as punishment for not growing enough cotton," writes the International Crisis Group in its 2005 report, "The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive Monoculture."

That report says that Uzbekistan's cotton industry is rife with corruption, giving farmers little incentive to push production, and that the country has done little to liberalize its economy and break up Soviet-style collectivized agriculture. Azmitdinov agrees, saying, "Little has changed - the same people give orders."

One of those people is an economist employed by the Pakhtakor district, who introduced himself only as Ziedulla-aka. He was dispatched to monitor the local cotton-growing campaign. He determines how much cotton a farmer should harvest.

"Now I examine the soil, tell farmers when they should plant cotton. It's impossible to [grow cotton] without people like me," he said.

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